Two Types of Servant
Lk 12:35-48, Mt 24:45-51, Mk 13:34-37
I'm doing these two parables together since they're part of the same speech in Luke, but each of them has a separate parallel in a different gospel. They're also pretty troubling.
Text: Two parables, with two versions each
Introduction: Grappling with slavery
Jewish context: Waiting by night
Challenges with the parables: The ugly side of these texts
More Jewish context: Torah and slavery
Christian interpretations: An interpretive black hole
Allegorization: Schottroff's "sweet poison"
The moral of the story: A conclusion of sorts
Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
Wise and Foolish Servants
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”
And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.
But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful.
That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."
Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?
Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.
But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
Right off the bat, I have to admit that I don't know how first-century Jews would have reacted to this parable, because I don't think—as a 21st-century American—I can get into the headspace of how they felt about slaves. I cannot get past my revulsion for these stories.
Even before we get to the idea that a human who didn't psychically divine what the person who holds him in bondage desired and perform accordingly deserves a beating, or that any enslaved human being deserves to be cut in pieces, we have the idea that enslaved human beings should never sleep, so that they can be ready at any time to perform subservience for a slaveholder—not just the porter (at least in the Lucan version), whose job it is to open the door, but the entire household, regardless of their assigned function.
Even in the less disturbing first parable/simile, the reward seems to be the abolition of slavery, or even the reversal of it, in that the master "fastens his belt" (presumably, refrains from beating the slaves) and serves them dinner. But this is only if the slaves refrain from sleeping, at night, which is presumably the only time they have to sleep. Freedom from slavery is not, apparently, a given when the kingdom of heaven arrives but is available only to those who both abuse and abase themselves.
It's easy to wave this off with either the idea that slavery was normal (perhaps, but no slaveholder could reasonably have expected that his slaves never sleep), or that it's allegory (perhaps, but even as allegory, it makes suggestions, in allegorizing the returning master as God or Jesus, as to what is just or right or good). The story must still be dealt with as a story.
The Path Not Taken
(through the Sea of Reeds)
Before we discuss the parable as it plays out, I want to discuss the barest hint of an alternative parallel that Jesus teases in the Lucan version. For Jews, to hear that we are to wait through the night, dressed for action, with our lamps lit, evokes not slaves waiting for the return of the slaveowner, but slaves waiting to escape, slaves waiting for an uprising: the Exodus story.
When Jesus tells these parables, he is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Pesach (Passover)—the commemoration of the Israelites' departure from Egypt, gaining their freedom from slavery.
I think it's reasonable to assume, given the context—the time, the place, the audience—that Jesus's listeners, as Jesus told them not to worry about having enough money, and then to be ready, as if for a journey, would have been expecting a promise that God was going to free them from their oppressors. The Egyptians of yesterday would be an allegory for the Romans of their day, and with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God would smite them and release his people from their cruel bondage.
What a shock—what a slap in the face—to hear that what was coming was not freedom but a returning slaveowner.
Like the appearance of the Samaritan instead of the ordinary Israelite suggested by the incomplete trilogy of kohen-Levite-Israelite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the surprise replacement of God the Liberator with God the Returning Slaveowner certainly gives the parable the "bite" Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is always looking for—but to what end, in this case?
Even More Contemporary Christian Commentary
The Ugly Side of the Parables
I've argued a lot with Christians on Twitter who like to describe Christians who support government policies that they (and I!) find cruel and inhumane, who preach hate and bigotry, and so on as "fake Christians." They claim that while these people may claim to be Christian, they're clearly not, since they're not following Jesus's teachings, which in their minds are very clearly all about compassion.
My response to this is usually that everyone picks and chooses which sayings of Jesus they consider important, because I don't think that taken in aggregate, the words attributed to him in the gospels form any sort of coherent philosophy or ideology, beyond the idea that the world as his listeners knew it was about to end.
Jesus, as far as I can tell, is a Rorschach blot.
Even before you get into the non-gospel sections of the NT, which say some pretty horrific things, Jesus says and does disturbing stuff (such as cursing a fig tree because it isn't bearing fruit out of season, or hurling racist invective against the Canaanite woman).
As usual, when Christian commentators deal with these passages, their homiletic move is usually to blame Jesus's occasional nastiness on his Jewishness. When he's compassionate, it's because he's God; when he's vulnerable, it's because he's human. But when he's prejudiced or impatient or straight-up mean, it's apparently because he's Jewish. (Trees have rights under Jewish law, so Jesus cursing an innocent fig tree that's just doing what's natural for fig trees seems a strange behavior to attribute to his Jewishness, but why do any research?)
And I don't see any way around it: these parables have an ugly attitude toward slaves, and one that no amount of contemporary theorizing about historical norms for attitudes toward slavery can justify, at least if you believe Jesus was God or even divinely inspired. Moreover, while I'm not going to argue that first-century Judaism was enlightened, by modern standards, on the subject of slavery, the idea that this attitude simply represents normal Jewish thinking about slaves is a vast oversimplification, and a cop-out.
Torah and Slavery
It's almost a cliché at this point to say that the ancient world held different attitudes toward slavery than most of us do today. Slavery was an integral part of most Mediterranean economies, and it didn't work the same way as American chattel slavery. The Torah is—to its, and the world's, detriment, I think—evolutionary rather than revolutionary on the topic. The kindest framing I can put on it is that the people who wrote it simply couldn't imagine a world without slavery and never thought to question its existence.
All the same, I still bristle at the blithe cruelty of these parables, given that the Jewish origin story is that of being freed slaves. Egyptian slavery was such an abomination, according to the Torah, that God Godself decided to intervene to stop it. And even in the context of a culture that accepted slavery as a given, that allowed people to will other people to one another as property, these parables's gleefully vindictive descriptions of a master chopping up his slaves are inconsistent with the Torah's rules for how a slaveowner may treat slaves.
Note that there is no distinction in Hebrew between a "slave" and a "servant." The same word is used for both. Some translations render the text as "servant," "handmaid," etc. to soften it, but the text is talking about slaves.
The Torah allows slavery, but it does not allow the slaveowner unlimited authority over his slaves, and if the slaveowner transgresses the limits of his authority, he loses it. If he blinds his slave or knocks out a tooth, the slave goes free: the slaveowner does not have authority to maim a slave. If a slave escapes—presumably because the slaveowner has been unusually cruel—other citizens are prevented from returning the escapee to the slaveowner.
The hierarchy of slavery is backed at all times by the threat of violence, but the Torah limits the extent of that violence—a slaveowner might beat his slaves, but he cannot maim them. If they escape him, he cannot reclaim them. The power of the slaveowner is not absolute.
The most common interpretation of these parables, of course, seems to be exactly what Jesus claims it is: that no one knows at what time the kingdom of heaven will arrive, so one should be ready at all times, and that one has an obligation to treat other believers well. Some interpreters add warnings against becoming too involved with the (secular) world, as it can become a distraction and attachment.
Strangely, commentators such as Ruben Zimmerman (Puzzling the Parables of Jesus) see in these stories compassion for slaves:
In the opening sermon in Nazareth, the gospel is already explicitly identified as being for the outsider, the poor, and the oppressed as indeed women and children are often addressed by the healing Jesus in Luke's miracle stories. The parables reveal the same sensitivity to outsiders and the socially marginalized, whether it be slaves (Luke 12:35-38), [women, or children]... The reality and life of the marginalized is intentionally taken up in the parables and employed in the depiction of the rule and reign of God.
Other than to note the employment of everyday work, such as that of being a guard, in various parables, Zimmerman has nothing else to say about this story.
While she's not Christian, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine writes primarily for a Christian audience, so I'll include her here and note that in Short Stories by Jesus she is completely silent on these parables, despite dealing with other shorter ones like the parable—or simile—of the yeast. (Curious, given her insistence in discussing the prodigal son that we pay attention to the presence of slaves in the story, and deal with those characters not as metaphor but as real, enslaved human beings.) Similarly, neither Blomberg's Preaching the Parables nor his Interpreting the Parables deal with these. Perhaps they consider this a simile rather than a parable? Gower, in The Parables After Jesus, which catalogues the interpretive traditions around these stories, says nothing other than to note that the parable deals with Jesus's return at the end of the world.
Melissa Lynch's rather portentously titled A Historic-Critical and Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of the Kingdom sounds promising when it comes to analyzing how Jesus talks about slaves, but fails to deal with whether the attitudes expressed in the parables were normative for the time and place and class of Jesus's listeners, let alone just or compassionate by any standards, merely noting (in a discussion question!):
The crescendo of the have-nots, about 70 percent, were peasants who provided the labor and worked the land. They lived in the villages, townships and cities, and produced the wealth from which agrarian societies were based. The peasant laborers were attached to the land they worked, and they would be sold with the land as chattel. The ownership of the land was a power held by the ruler of the territory who could dispense the property as he pleased. For this reason, the aristocracy worked to secure hereditary rights, so their land would not be lost at the crowning of the next ruler. The Roman Empire gave Roman and Palestinian landowners great security; their land would stay within the family generation to generation, because the empire protected the people from foreign invasions. Therefore, landowners were often absent; they could leave their farms and estates to be managed by local hired-hands. This social circumstance was so common that it was applied in several of the parables: The Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave (Lk. 12:41-48), The Dishonest Manager (Lk. 16:1-13) and The Wicked Tenants (Lk. 20:9-19), to name a couple.
J. Ellsworth Kalas (Parables from the Back Side, Vol. 2) takes a more casual, pop culture-oriented approach, and describes Luke 12:35-40 as a story about "the genius of effective waiting." He too says nothing about 12:41-28.
In searching through some 30+ books—most intended primarily for clergy—on the parables, with one notable exception covered below, the above are the only dealings I found with the narrative of the wise and foolish servants, or faithful and unfaithful servants, as the slaves in 12:41-48 are variously called.
The avoidance is telling.
Schottroff's "Sweet Poison"
It's only in the work (The Parables of Jesus) of German feminist theologian Luise Schottroff (1934-2015) that I found a Christian commentator willing to grapple with the treatment of slaves in these stories:
The parables that describe the lives of female and male slaves have been read for centuries, and still are read at present, as allegories or parables with allegorical elements. This tradition of interpretation has justified slavery and identified the slaveowners with God. More recently there have been interpretations that distance themselves from justifying violence against slaves by saddling the evangelists with this allegorization. But the allegorization itself is not questioned.
That is the heart of the problem with allegorizing these parables: if the slaveowner, in this allegory, is God—and God is assumed to be just and good—then the treatment of the slaves by the slaveowner is, in some sense, implied to be just and good.
So, if we do not allegorize these parables, and if we do not assume the treatment of slaves they portray to be just, natural, or good, what's left?
Schottroff begins promisingly:
I am not prepared to justify violence against female or male slaves. My questions arise out of my theological refusal to believe that the same people who recognize God's Son in the tortured body of Christ could have looked right past the tortured bodies of slaves. I cannot believe that the slave parables justify the sufferings of slaves, willingly or unwillingly.
As a Jew, I don't have Schottroff's faith that "recogniz[ing] God's Son in the tortured body of Christ" provides any sort of immunization against looking past the tortured bodies of other human beings, or even about torturing them—the fate of many of my people at the hands of the Inquisition, for example, gives the lie to that idea—but I am willing to read her as being prescriptive for Christians rather than descriptive of them here.
Schottroff quickly zeroes in on just why it is all the slaves, and not just the porter or doorman, who must remain awake to greet the returning master:
He needs his slaves' greeting to be assured that he is master in the house. It is not just about opening the gate; there is more. And it is not enough that a porter should be awakened by the sound of the knocker to open the gate. The slave men and women must remain awake in order to show that they are slaves.
It is neither readiness nor affection that is truly at issue here: it is self-denial and self-degradation that are demanded, and the slaveowner demands them in order to demonstrate the hierarchy.
And while, with the system firmly in place, this display of subservience might be compelled merely via a command, we cannot ignore how the existence of such a system came to be in the first place:
Such behavior on the part of human beings can only be compelled through violence and the permanent threat of violence.
Here, Schottroff does something rather daring for someone who writes quite openly as a believing Christian, rather than simply a literary critic. She suggests that this parable is not original to Jesus himself, as the audience is not first-century Jews but second-century Christians.:
For people who themselves were slaves, or who knew such persons as their brothers and sisters in Christ in the congregation, the latent violence would have been clear. In a society that used slave labor in all spheres of life, the violence and degradation suffered by slaves were hidden from no one.
It's not uncommon for Christian commentators to claim that the particular version of a parable in a gospel isn't original, or that it's been added to, but I'm a little surprised to see one acknowledging an entire parable as the invention of the church.
The reversal of power—the master serving dinner to the slaves—is usually read as a promise of the way things will be in the kingdom of heaven:
This amazing deed of a slaveowner has caused this passage to be read as an allegory of Christ. In Luke 22:24-27, Jesus says that there are to be no power relationships in the community of his followers that resemble the relationships of political power in the Roman empire.
The idea of masters and slaves dining together is not, perhaps, as radical as we moderns might assume, though the reversal of positions might have been:
Seneca describes the treatment of slaves who serve at meals very critically and realistically. It is his idea that fate has placed them in this state but that they could have a noble character. Therefore the slaveowner should treat them decently and even, if they are well behaved, invite them individually to eat at table with him... Even Seneca himself found it excessive to give up the position of master even symbolically and for a short time. His concern was to encourage masters to behave cordially toward their slaves.
Note that, even so, this is not equality, but whim:
They are slaves, the property of their masters and mistresses, who could do with them whatever they wanted—even exchange roles for a short time.
Schottroff also points to the lack of engagement with the roles of slaveowner and slave among Christian commentators:
There has been ongoing critical discussion of Paul's attitude toward slavery, but the slave parables have for the most part been spared such criticism. The sweet poison of allegorization has immunized readers of the Bible.
And what about the punishment of the unfaithful slave in the second of these two parables, if it is not to be allegorized?
I understand this expression not as eternal punishment that God will bestow on him after his death," but as a clarification of what it is that legitimates his being killed. As an unfaithful slave he has forfeited his life, if his owner wishes it so. This text about the obedient or disobedient slaves describes the life of slaves, their unconditional subjection to the will of their master, the brief and short-sighted opportunities for disobedience—and even then at the expense of other enslaved people.
In my initial read of this passage, I bristled, because Schottroff seems to be acknowledging that allegorizing the parable seems to cast the text as approving of the slaveowner's behavior, and thus claiming that the parable should be read as merely describing the reality of slavery. If this is true, however, it would seem to rob the story of having a point. Why should Jesus bother telling a story that simply reiterates that it sucks to be a slave?
Moreover, to read the parables that way means dismissing Jesus's own words that follow them, which are to be ready—as were the slaves awaiting their returning master—which would seem to cast the slaves' wakefulness as a good thing, and a warning that trust comes with responsibility. But Schottroff does at least acknowledge the test's implicit approval of the state of things:
By its contrast of obedient and disobedient behavior the text makes its own the slaveowner's ideology of proper upbringing.
Resistance to Meaning
However, Schottroff goes on to note that the textual connection between the parable and Jesus's explicit moral at the end is limited to one aspect: that of responsibility:
The application in v. 48 takes up only one feature of the parable and the added parabolic saying: that of the assignment of a great responsibility. It is even repeated: the one to whom much is given... the one to whom much has been assigned. These are divine passives. What the text says is: You have been given great gifts by God; you have received a great task. God expects much, indeed, very much from you. God is not identified with the punishing slaveowner and his ideology of upbringing and his law of the whip. All that is reported without any explicit indication about how it should be evaluated.
This strikes me as a case of protesting too much. The idea that "much will be demanded" of someone implies consequences for failure as well as success—to argue that the example given immediately before the assertion that much will be demanded, an example detailing rewards for success and consequences for failure, is not associated with the assertion is to ignore how the parallel structure in parables works.
Schottroff resists any attempt to draw any meaning from these stories beyond that of the explicitly stated moral:
I consider it absolutely impossible that the Gospel of Luke tells these stories to God's slaves in order to say something to them allegorically about their relationship to God as God's slaves... Nor do the ideas about how slaves belonging to the Christian community are to be treated run in that direction.
If this is the case, one wonders, why bother with narrative, rather than a simple imperative, at all? Schottroff acknowledges that there must have been additional meaning suggested by the story, but posits that the reason it's not stated is that it was widely known.
Where, then, do the criteria for the hearers of these slave parables come from?—these parables that so brutally depict the reality of slave life, often including the ideology of the slaveowner. Those criteria must be so obvious that these slave stories could be told without any explicit guide to their evaluation.
The answer, apparently, is that the meaning of the story has simply been lost. Schottroff appears to be following Rudolf Bultmann, who argued that we can't know the meaning the "historical" Jesus intended for any of his stories, for this particular parable.
Schottroff's conclusion is that the slaveowner is not an allegory for God, but simply a slaveowner, and that the parable doesn't describe God's relationship with the faithful, but future relationships among humans:
The arrogance of the masters of the world will have its end. The slaveowner's lowering of himself in 12:37 is, in this context, a sign of hope, even if the parable is only a fictional story with particular emphases and if this feature is not particularly emphasized.
Yet just earlier, Schottroff herself was pointing out that this "lowering of himself" is the slaveowner's whim, not true equality. The arrogance of the masters of the world might have its end, but apparently their power over others will remain. After all, the master's pleasure at his slaves' subservience results in a single meal in which their positions are reversed, not manumission.
Schottroff goes on to attempt to distinguish between being "slaves of God" and the institution of slavery in the Roman empire:
It is the idea, unique in antiquity, that slaves of God reject all subjection to earthly masters... How different it is to be God's "slave," freed from the degradation of slavery.
Ultimately, even if one insists that God not be identified with the slaveowner in the parables, the gravitational pull of the identification remains, leaving only the rather weak insistence that God may be a slaveowner, but God is not that sort of slaveowner, and for that we should be grateful... like the slaves whose slaveowner lowers himself to eat with them, but does not free them.
I actually agree that we shouldn't assume the slaveowner is supposed to represent God, but this is a Mobius strip of an interpretation.
A Conclusion, of Sorts
I believe that Schottroff writes in good faith, but ultimately, her take on these parables collapses back into the original identification of God as slaveowner, and the privileging of self-abuse and self-abasement to demonstrate affection-as-subservience. And if she can't escape that gravitational pull (and most other Christian commentators decline to try), I'm not sure it's possible.
We're left with the choice between refusing to take anything away from these stories beyond the conclusion that Jesus (qua Luke) states directly—that believers should remain ready in eschatological anticipation, and that trust comes with responsibility—or struggling with stories that seem to justify abusive behavior and celebrate slavery and subservience gained with the implicit threat of violence, acknowledging that it is only by God's choice that humans do not suffer divine abuse. Presumably Jesus does not mean to lament divine power over humanity; we are left to decide whether he is merely acknowledging it, or celebrating it.
It's easy to understand why most commentators don't want to touch this one.
But I think it's important to acknowledge, when people claim that Jesus clearly espoused an ideology of compassion, siblinghood between all humankind, etc. that the words attributing him only paint that sort of clear picture when we leave some of them out.
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
Mark Cartwright, Slavery in the Roman World
Aryeh Bernstein, The Torah Case for Reparations
The paintings on this page are Renaissance works using chiaroscuro to show people by candlelight, in keeping with the theme of the slaves remaining awake all night to await the return of the slave owner.
Wolfgang Heimbach (1615–1678)
A Young Man with a Candle (1646)
Jusepe de Ribera, St. Paul the Hermit (1647)
Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing (c. 1605)
Petrus van Schendel (1806-1870), Reading by Candlelight
There is also an image from Pexels, a free stock image site:
Woman reaching hand over sea: Maria Orlova